Forum

A different kind of garden for CMU

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Over the past three years, I spent a great deal of time on the CMU campus studying how students use the public and common spaces. What became apparent to me was that it was unnecessary to duplicate any existing outdoor areas. After talking to many people on campus, I began to visualize a unique kind of garden. The original inspiration came from the Greek agora, an open marketplace where teachers of different philosophies held classes side by side, and where students could listen to their teachers debate, all while walking along. I imagined a place where walking and getting lost in conversation could become an active rather than a passive pleasure; a place to meet friends and colleagues, or encounter strangers from other disciplines ? a literal marketplace of ideas.
As the project developed, I realized the site needed a center, a heart to circulate around (and a place to sit down and have lunch). The word ?campo? comes from the Latin campus ? an open field. The most famous campo is in the Italian city of Sienna, which, with its streets radiating out from the center like the arms of a starfish, suggested a model for the garden. If Italian architecture seems foreign to Pittsburgh, remember that the two greatest buildings in Pittsburgh are H.H. Richardson?s County Courthouse, an homage to medieval European architecture, and Henry Hornbostel?s masterpiece, the College of Fine Arts, which references an encyclopedic range of the great monuments of the world, among them the cathedrals of central Italy.
Both Michael Van Valkenburgh, with whom I collaborated on the design of the garden, and I felt that the campus needed a space of fantasy and imagination, where one could escape from the daily pressures of academic life, somewhere not on the way to somewhere else. That is what we tried to build ? a place set apart, a world in itself. It has been suggested that the garden is ?out of context? with the run of campus architecture, and that the colors ?clash? with the neutral tones of adjacent buildings. But that design philosophy, with its subtext of ?never call attention to yourself,? has only littered the landscape with bland, unimaginative buildings.
In order to give the garden the feeling of being a world, it needed a central generating form. From the beginning I was certain that it had to be an organic form. How better to generate a set of curves than from the French curve? And what a happy coincidence that it resembled another historical signifier ? the artist?s palette. That engineers and artists no longer use these tools does not alter the tools? ability to symbolize two entire cultures at a glance. Covering the French curve with numbers arranged in a random pattern (with the additional twist of a four-directional axial rotation) was inspired by the great black and white Roman mosaic floors at Pompeii and Herculaneum.
Our concept behind the paths was to choreograph the experience of a long walk in a small space. The meandering paths, rising and falling as they curve between the undulating mounds, heighten one?s awareness of one?s constantly changing orientation to the site, all while giving the surreal sensation of stepping into orangeness. The planting material was selected to have color that changes in spectacular and surprising patterns as the seasons progress.
Inscribed in tile on the back wall is a quotation from the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. It has been transcribed word-for-word in reverse order, an old and simple form of encryption. The idea was to provide a text, like a caption, to accompany the garden, but one that critiques the very idea of those ?elevated sentiments? engraved on institutional facades around the world. The quotation, when deciphered, reveals itself as a metaphor for the garden as a labyrinth.
We hope our design offers all the desirable pleasures of a garden, including intellectual stimulation. But even beyond that, I hope that it offers students an ideal to strive for ? think for yourself, use your imagination, don?t worry about blending in, and keep in mind that sometimes you have to walk around in circles, or look at the world backwards, to see it as it really is.